Tuesday, March 18, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Mustangs, Bearcats too good

Leader sports editor

Since joining The Leader sports staff in September of 2001, the opportunity to cover local basketball teams in the state championship game has arisen 19 times. Local teams have amassed a cumulative 9-10 record in those games.

It’s been said that high-school basketball in central Arkansas is as good as anywhere in the nation. That’s a subjective statement, but what is empirically verifiable is that, as a whole, high-school basketball in central Arkansas is better than anywhere else in the state.

Since that’s 19 championship games in 13 seasons, many of those years multiple Leader coverage teams made it the same year.

That was the case again this year when the Lonoke and Jacksonville boys advanced to their respective classifications’ title games. But this year was the first when more than one team made it that far, none of them won.

Lonoke lost 60-50 to Brookland in the 4A championship on Thursday, and Jacksonville fell 69-60 to Forrest City in the 5A championship on Friday. There have also been games in which the local team pulled an upset, and games in which it was clear the local team was better, but for one reason or another, didn’t pull it out.

But this year, even if it wasn’t evident before the game, it was clear the local teams had an uphill battle, and the better team won.

After suffering a miserable shooting performance early that never improved much as the game moved along, Lonoke proved that it had the skills to not only beat Brookland, but probably blow them out. But skill is not all a team needs. A team needs depth to play the way Lonoke has to play in order to beat Brookland.

After falling behind by double digits, the Jackrabbits went to the full court press in order to try to climb back into the game.

In that time period, Brookland was a wreck. The Bearcats were completely incapable of handling Lonoke’s pressure. On about four consecutive possessions, they didn’t even get the ball across the half-court line.

But the Jackrabbits only go about six deep of players that could be considered starters, and only about seven deep with players that got considerable minutes in big games this year. With that lack of depth, the style of play that got Lonoke back into the game, the relentless, unwavering, run-and-jump pressure defense, is unsustainable.

The other problem Lonoke had was the shooting woes. Even after forcing so many turnovers, the Jackrabbits could hardly get a shot to fall.

And though Brookland doesn’t pressure the entire court, its brand of half-court defense is inside your pocket, and that made scoring awfully tough for the Jackrabbits.

Lonoke had proven at times earlier this season that it was capable of shutdown defense. It had been utilized in wins over Heber Springs during the regular season, against Jonesboro Westside in the regional and again against Nashville in the state semifinals.

When the Jackrabbits make up their mind that they need to stop you, they are going to stop you. But instead of being tied or slightly ahead, and trying to put the game away, they were trying to erase a deficit against probably the second-best defensive team in 4A, on a night when shots wouldn’t fall.

Brookland had more depth and an overall better shooting team. They commit very few turnovers in a regular flow of play, and that’s something that has plagued Lonoke all season.

Brookland also had a better inside game. Blake Mack was the biggest player on the floor, but more often than not, he received the ball up high and penetrated.

In the 5A game, Jacksonville was overmatched. The Red Devils have enjoyed advantages in size and depth in almost every game, and certainly in every conference game. They had neither of those advantages against the Mustangs.

Forrest City is not only the biggest team in 5A, but the biggest team in Arkansas. They go at least as deep as Jacksonville and probably deeper. The Mustangs got 28 of their 69 championship points from non-starters. They have four players who are taller than Jacksonville’s tallest player, including Arkansas Razorback signee Trey Thompson, and a Division I prospect at guard in sophomore Robert Glasper.

Glasper has unfairly developed a reputation as a shooter because of his fearlessness in launching, and making, shots from several feet beyond the 3-point line.

Fact is, Glasper can get inside and finish, and has a keen knack for knowing plays, how they’re supposed to work, and delivering bullet passes to teammates with open looks.

Jacksonville didn’t have a point guard at all. Sergio Berkley, a senior who has played the two and the three since becoming a starter his sophomore year, moved to the point this season out of necessity.

Tyree Appleby, a freshman who Jacksonville coach Vic Joyner moved to varsity this year out of necessity, showed signs that he’s going to be a great team leader, but he wasn’t ready to carry a team in a game of this magnitude.

Two things in particular stood out about Appleby’s leadership qualities. He showed his own fearlessness in launching big shots, draining two 3-pointers in the third quarter, each of which stemmed a Forrest City run. But the most dramatic display of toughness came when he took a charge in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t just an ordinary charge. Forrest City got a steal near midcourt and Mustang senior Dwain Whitfield came barreling down the middle of the court.

Whitfield is 6-foot-7, and probably weighs around 210 pounds. Appleby is 5-foot-8 and probably weighs about 120 pounds. Appleby set his feet in the middle of the lane before Whitfield even got to the three-point line, and stayed there. He stayed there as the man a foot taller and nearly 100 pounds heavier steamrolled him and threw down a monster dunk. The slam brought the house down, but didn’t count. Appleby had done his job again. That’s the kind of toughness and composure a team needs from a point guard.

Jacksonville out-worked, out-rebounded and outscored Forrest City in the first half. Mustang coach Dwight Lofton got his team’s attention at halftime, and they came out with a renewed focus in the second half. When the Mustangs matched Jacksonville’s effort, there was no question which team was better.

Still, almost all the players on the floor in Red uniforms already have a championship ring from last year, and that counts for something. Joyner mildly derided one reporter for asking if there is any solace in already having won a championship, saying they didn’t come here to lose, and that last year’s title means nothing. But he said so while gesturing with hands that were sporting two big, shiny championship rings from years past. He doesn’t wear those rings for nothing.

These players had already proven themselves champions. Of the 10 different Leader area teams that make up the 19 championship game appearances in the last 13 seasons, the most any one team has made it is four, and that’s the Jacksonville boys. All four have come in the last six years. The Red Devils have become a marquee program, and more title games await.